Marvels of Materials: Authored by Doug Braun, Binghamton University

Marvels of Materials: Trade and Materiality in Ancient Egypt

        The story of materials is often just as fascinating as the objects those materials are used to make. The materials shown in this exhibition tell a story of trade, international relations, and the dynamics of power in both ancient Egypt and the larger ancient world. Trade in materials facilitated contact between Egypt and its neighbors, as the ruling classes searched for exotic and foreign materials like ivory, ebony, and gold from Nubia, cedar from Lebanon, copper from Cyprus, and finished goods from across the ancient world. As elites enriched their kingdoms with high-status objects, their own hold on power was legitimized in the eyes of the people they ruled. An appreciation of ancient materiality allows us to perceive the ways in which ancient peoples, of many different social levels, interacted with the world of objects, ranging from raw materials and essential ingredients, such as clay and quartz, and finished products, like pottery and faience.  
        While both raw materials and finished goods were traded between Egypt and its neighbors since prehistoric times, this trade became even more interconnected with the development of the regional trade system of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600-1200 BCE), showing that a unified system of alliances and states best facilitated trade. This system relied on a series of hierarchical trade relations between the kings of the major Late Bronze Age powers: the Egyptians, Hittites in Asia Minor, and the Assyrians and Babylonians in Mesopotamia. This international trade apparatus relied on a complex system of political, commercial, and social interactions. It was during this period that Egypt was not only at its greatest extent territorially, but also at its richest in terms of materials. During the Late Bronze Age, Egyptian traders sailed as far south as Punt on the Horn of Africa. This interregional interaction came suddenly and violently to a halt around 1200 BCE as many Late Bronze Age sites met destructive, fiery ends in what is called the “Late Bronze Age Collapse.” Though Egypt survived this collapse, it was severely weakened and never enjoyed the power and territorial extent it had in the Late Bronze Age. However, Egypt still continued to import and export valuable materials during the Iron Age.
        Throughout its long history, Egypt stood as a vital nexus of trade, connecting the Near East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Mediterranean world. This connectivity is shown through the materials used in Egyptian art, as local materials are used in conjunction with imported ones to create the works of art seen in this exhibition. However, these materials are not simply the means with which to create art. They are instead evidence of a larger culture of art and trade in the ancient world, as societies interacted with one another in order to obtain these precious materials to create their own works of art, showing that the materials (and the stories of their trade and use) are indeed just as important as the objects themselves.
Learn more about the materials used by the Egyptians, follow the path at the bottom of the page!
Note: This exhibit was originally installed in the Binghamton University Art Museum for the spring 2020 semester. We thank the museum for allowing this online exhibit and for providing images. All of the exhibit text on these pages was authored by Doug Braun, Binghamton University. 
A note on the author: Doug Braun is a Classical Civilizations, History, and Anthropology major at Binghamton University, class of 2020. To read more about him, see this page
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Claire Kovacs, Silvia Ivanova, and Diane Butler of the Binghamton University Art Museum. Thanks to Marc Newton, Jonathan Cohen, and Hilary Becker for their photos. Thanks to Professor Jeffrey Pietras (Department of Geological Sciences) for his work investigating cobalt on the Egyptian vessel for this exhibit. And thanks to Evan Henderson and Jennifer Micale for promoting this exhibit.

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